President Barack Obama will have some headwinds to fight in the upcoming election. The economy may be mildly improving, but the latest CBO projection shows that the U.S. economy will only expand in 2012 at the same rate as the last two years, and that unemployment will likely climb back up to 8.8 percent in the quarter before the election. So with the GOP looking to paint him as a partisan incompetent on the economy, the last thing Obama needs is to hand Republicans a culture-war argument on top of his current woes... right?
Well, that is exactly what President Obama did last week. Cecilia Munoz, the Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, announced that the administration would only grant a one-year enforcement delay for religious organizations unhappy about a federal mandate on employers to provide coverage for contraception. While the rule, which is part of ObamaCare, grants an exemption for "churches and other houses of worship," the Obama administration clearly sees this as a concession that could easily be revoked at their discretion, and puts the federal government in charge of defining religious organizations.
The last thing Obama needs is to hand Republicans a culture-war argument on top of his current woes... right?
The mandate comes through the authority granted to the Department of Health and Human Services by ObamaCare — and failure to adhere to the mandate will put employers at risk for massive amounts in fines. Until ObamaCare, only states had mandates for health insurance, and religious organizations did not have a requirement to comply with contraception or abortion mandates. Employers also had the option of simply opting out of offering health insurance — an option that's no longer available without paying hefty fines.
This applies to all religious organizations, such as charities, clinics, hospitals, and shelters run by denominations of all kinds. While the Obama administration might want to claim that these organizations do not qualify under the First Amendment protections against government interference in religious matters, the churches that run them see these organizations as essential extensions of their religious missions. That is certainly true of the Catholic Church, whose hundreds of hospitals and clinics exist to put their doctrine of social justice into practice. That doctrine, however, is based on the sanctity of human life — the very core doctrine that this new edict from the White House violates by forcing the Catholic Church to fund contraception and abortive products.
But let's put aside the radical nature of Obama's intervention into the spiritual life of Americans and simply consider the political implications of this decision. Picking a fight with social conservatives might not bother Obama and his advisers in an election year. After all, Obama could hardly do worse with evangelicals, and Obama lost Protestants overall in the 2008 election by nine points and still managed to win the election. Perhaps they see an opportunity to exploit the gender gap by posing as a defender of womens' rights by forcing Catholics and other religious organizations to pay for their contraception.
However, Catholics are not, by and large, social conservatives. Obama won the Catholic vote by nine points in 2008 (54 percent to 45 percent). Catholics accounted for a whopping 27 percent of the 2008 electorate. Purposefully alienating that voting bloc in an already-difficult election year risks flipping that vote substantially against Obama in November. Even for those Catholics who don't agree with church teachings on contraception, the spectacle of a president dictating doctrine to bishops won't endear them to Obama.
The national number just begins to tell the story. Catholics comprise even higher percentages of the vote in key swing states that Obama must win in order to get a second term. For instance, Obama won Pennsylvania in 2008 by 11 points while losing Catholics — a third of Pennsylvania's electorate — by 4 percent. With Pennsylvania Catholics now hearing condemnations of Obama's decision from their bishops, Obama may have put the Keystone State at serious risk. A Republican could win Pennsylvania for the first time since George H.W. Bush in 1988.
Florida is another example. Obama carried the Sunshine State by a narrow three-point margin in 2008. Catholics comprised 28 percent of that vote, and Obama only barely won among them, 50 percent to 49 percent. How many of those Catholics will cast another vote for Obama, especially since their own Sen. Marco Rubio — a Catholic himself — has now proposed a bill specifically revoking the new Obama rule and protecting choices of religious conscience? If more than a few switch from Obama to his Republican challenger, Obama will lose 29 electoral votes he can hardly spare.
The damage won't be limited to Catholics, either, or voters of faith in general. Republicans have long painted Obama as a radical executive inclined to rule by diktat rather than govern by the rule of law. Obama's mild personal demeanor has helped him deflect this criticism, but forcing Christians to violate their conscience in order to fit his own worldview provides the GOP a great deal of evidence for their argument.
Editor's Note: This column originally misstated the last time a Republican presidential candidate won Pennsylvania. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 10 things you need to know today: September 1, 2014
- The 10 best networking tips for people who hate networking
- 11 scientific studies that will restore your faith in humanity
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- Why the West should let Russia have eastern Ukraine
- Scottish independence is another financial crisis waiting to happen
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- Why baseball is America's most dangerous spectator sport
- 9 Harvard dropouts who became fabulously successful
Subscribe to the Week